Adam Kirsch reviews two books by Michael Sandel and Amartya Sen that seek to augment John Rawls' magnum opus:
Since John Rawls published [A Theory of Justice] in 1971, its ideas and language have exercised an extraordinary hold on the imagination of political thinkers. Just look at Justice by Michael J. Sandel and The Idea of Justice by Amartya Sen—two books, coincidentally appearing at the same moment, by leading political philosophers, both of them professors at Harvard (as Rawls was). Justice is the more accessible work, based on Sandel’s popular introductory course in Harvard’s Core Curriculum, while The Idea of Justice is more ambitious, treating a range of theoretical and practical problems in political economy. Yet both books are, at heart, responses to and revisions of Rawls, and their titles deliberately allude to Rawls’s magnum opus. Just as the nineteenth-century critics of Hegel were still known as Young Hegelians, so these critics of Rawls are essentially post-Rawlsians.
The power of A Theory of Justice, which functions in Sen’s and Sandel’s books like the Freudian father who both must and must not be slain, comes from the way Rawls gave theoretical form to the core assumptions of late-twentieth-century left-liberalism. Rawls’s version of social contract theory is almost as well known by now as Hobbes’s and Locke’s. The only way for us to design a truly just society, Rawls argues, is to imagine ourselves behind a “veil of ignorance” that prevents us from knowing what our actual place in society will be—more, that blocks off our view of our own abilities, desires, and values. People negotiating in this “original position,” Rawls holds, will necessarily agree on two basic principles: first, that the liberty of every person will be inviolable; second, that economic disparities will only be allowed if they serve the advantage of the worst-off in society.